It all started when a guy told me in a Facebook post that if someone tells him he is humble, it is a certain sign he isn’t. Though I told him he should just be humble enough to take my word for it, nonetheless, I decided to consult the New Testament, if only to straighten out a few things. The short of it is, I’m pretty sure humility is overrated, at least as preachers tell it.
So much about humility is self-contradictory. Mostly, I suspect, that’s why the Bible goes after pride. When humility does come up, say, around Luke 14:711, it appears to be mere political gesture.
In Luke 14, Jesus attends a Sabbath dinner. This is the Shabbat, a supper that marks the Sabbath observance. There is prayer, blessed bread and wine, and thanksgiving to him “who nourishes the whole world in goodness, with grace, kindness, and compassion.”
As the Sabbath guests scramble for the seats of honor. Jesus tells them a parable; at least Luke calls it a parable: Don’t take the best seat, take a low seat and wait to be called up to a higher seat. Take a high seat first and you may end up humiliated when the host asks you to leave it and give way to someone lower. Oops, huh?
So act early and avoid potential embarrassment by taking a lower seat. Spying lowly you way down there, the host may instead call you up higher (and send someone else lower, to your smug satisfaction). And clever you, “you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” Hooray.
Preachers usually present this as a straight-faced lesson on how to be humble. Honest, that’s not much of a parable. Worse, it is hardly an item to show up on the list of “what would Jesus do” things, when you think about it.
In fact, all Jesus is doing is quoting Proverbs 25:67: “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.” What we have is a parable that isn’t a parable, some political calculation, human foresight, and a morality adage tacked on at the end: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
All Jesus has done, it would seem, is create a bull market for the cheap seats. Fights will probably be waged among guests proving their humility by trying to find low seating suited to their high tastes. If that’s all that’s happening, then it is, as I said, a political calculation. This is how to be humble out of regard for one’s personal pride.
But if this is a parablea story with a hidden false bottomthen we need to look further, and the key is the nature of the Shabbat dinner. After the proverbial lecture on humility as political gesture (I think I can hear the Christological voice of sarcasm in there as Jesus speaks, I really do), Jesus tells his host: Next time, the people you invite to your Shabbat should be “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
That’s an interesting group. These are the same class of folks forbidden by Levitical law (21:1723) from making priestly temple offerings to the Lord. Besides that, they can’t repay their host, which seems to be something of the purpose for inviting them.
I have this notion that when Jesus introduced his Supperthe last one he hosted with his discipleshe modeled it more off the Shabbat than the Passover. The Passover was annual, celebrating liberation and deliverance, remembrance and identity. The Shabbat was weekly, but it has many of the same features, notably, a meal of fellowship in community with God. The bread and wine used in both, Shabbat and Passover, we have reinterpreted as Christ’s body and blood. In this sense, the parable of who is called up higher is indeed deeply political, for Christ shatters the distinctions of class and creates the economy of salvation.
The invitation to the table of Jesus is a call to a higher humility, for we know we cannot repay our host. Yet for his own reasons he chooses to exalt us in his Father’s love.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.